★★★★ / ★★★★
Kirsten Johnson’s “Cameraperson” is the kind of film that reminds us of the amount of junk we watch on television and the movies. It is not that its aim is to criticize our consumption or the media, but thoughtful viewers are likely to walk out of the picture after it is over—at least I did—and consider why many stories so worthy of our time and attention are almost always never under the spotlight unless national or personal tragedy strikes. I walked out of this excellent documentary feeling as though my life is richer from having seen it.
The picture is a collage in that it is composed of clips that last about ten to sixty seconds and then it is onto the next image, the next country. Seemingly random at first but we feel it often has a point it wishes to convey, the strands come together quite beautifully some time in the middle to make a point about people who are oppressed and powerless. But they are not defeated. By appearing on film, speaking directly to camera, appealing to us, looking at us, looking through us, it is almost a way of gaining their power back. Because one way of defeating someone completely is to silence them, for history to forget about them. The men, women, and children we encounter are not silent. They prove resilient.
It delivers numerous powerful imageries. There is the boy with his left eye damaged as he describes what he sees through his working eye and what he sees (and doesn’t see) through the other. There is a midwife in Nigeria helping to deliver twins. The first baby is healthy but the second doesn’t cry, small, frail, barely able to breathe. There is an old woman, her face as wrinkled as a thousand-year-old tree, kneading dough. Her personality is fiery, her smile infectious as the director compliments her about her fashion. And then there are women using an axe to chop down a tree for firewood. They have been driven out of their homes, their friends and family have been murdered. Yet they haven’t forgotten how to laugh, to make light of their current situation.
This is a most humanistic film and Johnson, a veteran documentary cinematographer, highlights and explores that humanity. One gets the impression that she understands her craft, the point of her chosen field, and the importance of remaining objective but still caring for or caring about her subject. And then there are clips of her own mother, three years after having been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. We observe the power of the disease, its ability to erase a person’s identity. Johnson shows her mother pictures of what should be familiar faces. The woman recognizes these faces but is unable to connect that the child in the photograph is now all grown up, her daughter standing right next to her.
An average viewer is likely to consider “Cameraperson” as a gimmick—a most unfortunate mistake because, in a way, the story is about all of us: people with a set of circumstances simply trying to live the best way we can. Compelling in every way, some time in the middle, I caught myself wishing that every clip were expanded into a full-length feature. As I sat through the credits, silent and absorbing the gravity of what I had seen. I found, to my greatest surprise, that my wish had already come true. I will make sure to watch Johnson’s other projects.